What Happens When the President Sits Down Next to You at a Cafe

I learned that even Obama knows young people don't use Facebook anymore.
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The author, at "work" (Pete Souza/The White House)

Before

Thursday into Friday, my head cold got worse, so on Friday morning I walked down to a bar-cafe-restaurant in my neighborhood. I had been there for a few hours when youthful, vigorous men and women wearing Business Semi-Formal started quietly going one by one among the customers sitting near me. They would crouch, adopt an expression of deep sympathy, and say something. The customer would look a little confused, pick up laptop and coat, and move to another table.

Next to me, cafe staff had made a long table by pushing three smaller tables together. Five Millennials sat around it. They were well-dressed like Ryan Seacrest is well-dressed, and they seemed nervous. The head of their table hadn’t been filled. I had assumed someone important, someone hoity-toity, would be coming, someone like a foundation executive director.

This was a little bit annoying, but my legs ached and the Internet was spotty and I wanted to go to a different, better coffee shop, so I asked for the check. 

Then a man, another of the handsome ones, came by.

“Hey,” he murmured. “Will you be leaving soon?”

I said I wasn’t sure. I’d asked for the check.

“Okay,” he said. “I just wanted to let you know the president will be stopping by.”

Oh, I thought. The president of what?

“You’re welcome to stay, but one of our agents will be coming around to swipe you.”

Then I understood. An agent came around to swipe me.

The world is made of people: I get this. Our republic only works if we know our leaders are fallible humans. I disagree with the Obama Administration about plenty. None of this kept me from experiencing immediate, full-on, feverish anxiety.

During

When the president arrived, 40 minutes later—stepping out of his SUV, smiling, with a little wave—the nerves subsided. The cafe is split into two long halves, and he first turned to visit its opposite half, smiling, shaking hands, shaking more hands.

And then—for the first time in nearly an hour—I could work. I found that I was so accustomed to his voice, how he holds his body, his aura, that ignoring him in person is as easy as ignoring a TV. Easier, in fact. He stops being the president and starts being That Guy Who You See In Tweets, That Guy Who Gives Speeches, That Guy.

That Guy shook exactly half the hands on the other side of the restaurant. He came back to our side. He addressed the five people sitting adjacent to me—who were, indeed, apparently there to talk to him.

That Guy said he would save our whole side of the restaurant for after the meal. But then, next to me, on my other side, he spotted a baby.

He apologized to the group. He could not resist, he said, a baby.

Concerning the Baby

He picked up the baby. The baby’s mom told him about the baby. Before, I had asked her if she would like pictures of them meeting, so I got out my phone and documented the event. One of those pictures is above.

Pete Souza, the official White House photographer, was also there. He documented the event a little better than I did.

There is little else to say about the baby. He was adorable. Obama really seemed to appreciate holding him, and bounced him for probably a minute. The baby's mom told him that their family had just been stationed in Kenya, that that’s where the baby was born.

He seemed to stumble for a second, as he realized he could not phrase a joke in exactly the way he could phrase it in private.

“That’s, that’s where Donald Trump thinks I was born,” he said.

Then he handed the baby back to his mom. It was then that I made my only physical contact with the president. 

My Only Physical Contact With the President

The president hands the baby back to its mom. The president makes eye contact with me.

“Great to see you,” says the president.

The president extends his hand while simultaneously pivoting on his right foot.

His hands grasp mine. They feel like the rough surface of your favorite baseball.

Eye contact was broken mid-handshake. His hand trailed his turned body *which has already turned on the pivoted foot.* He greeted a couple across the way from me.

This concludes my communication with the president of the United States.

My Only Source for This Section Is What I Eavesdropped

Obama sat down at the head of the table. There was a brief photo op at the opposite end of the table. I surreptitiously took a picture to remember what being on the other side of a wall of cameras felt like, but now it seems more remarkable that I can see the president’s undershirt.

He had come to my local cafe to meet with five young people. According to White House background, provided to me after he left, they met to discuss how to get more 18-34 year-olds to sign up for the coverage under the Affordable Care Act. (The law depends on 18-34 year-olds signing up for healthcare.) One of the five was a navigator, someone employed to help families sign up; another helped explain the law at a mall over the holidays.

They talked about health care stuff for the first 20 minutes. The five shared their experiences, and some of them spoke quietly, so I couldn’t hear them that well.

At one point the president said, “Now, this isn’t public yet.” I perked up.

“Thirty percent of somethingsomethingsomething is mumblemumble,” he said.

I didn’t hear. I had failed as a journalist, so I went to the bathroom.

Failure

When I got back, they were talking about music. Circumstantial evidence indicates that, while I was in the bathroom, they talked about Beyoncé. 

The conversation moved on. They talked about cell phones, and Obama mentioned how Malia did not receive one until she was 16. One of the young people pointed out that, unlike most parents, the president could always argue that he’d know where she was.

They segued to talking about social media (I couldn’t hear their exact words). Now, I thought. Now I could do tech journalism.

The president said something—I could not hear all of it—about new social media apps that were for messaging, new apps that only somethingsomething’d for eight seconds.

“Snapchat,” said one of the young people.

The president made a comment about how different apps were now popular. Someone—it might have been the president—said the word “Instagram.” 

I guess that they were talking about the difficulty of doing political outreach on Snapchat or one of this newer, less textual ilk? I’m not sure. Then the president drops this:

“It seems like they don’t use Facebook anymore,” he said.

Facebook is so uncool even the president of the United States knows it.

I am not sure who the they is. A White House representative I talked to afterward hypothesized that it might be the 18 to 34 year-olds whom the President hopes will sign up for the healthcare law.  Maybe it was the third-person singular, gender-neutral pronoun. I don’t know.

It is a question of high hermeneutic importance.

The Only Other Thing I Overheard

Michelle has begun watching Scandal.

“It’s not that exciting,” said the president, of the White House. Staffers “don’t have enough time to engage in too much scandalous behavior.”

Then the meal was over. Obama got up and took a photo with the five. He put his jacket back down, walked past me, and greeted the rest of the restaurant’s customers. He turned at the end, said good-bye to the baby again as he passed (tousling his hair), rounded the corner, and was gone.

A crowd had gathered across the street. It cheered as Obama got back in his SUV.

After

The Millennial closest to Obama, and therefore also closest to me, asked who I was. They asked me if I had photo-bombed. I had not, really. In this, I missed the greatest photobombing opportunity of my life.

I had, however, won Snapchat. Forever.

 

 

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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